Lady Macbeth slipped slowly into place above the docking cradle, her equatorial verniers sparkling briefly as Joshua compensated for drift. Optical-band sensors gave a poor return here; Tunja's ruby glow was insipid even in clear space, and down where Ayacucho lurked among the disk particles it was an abiding roseate gloom. Laser radar guided the starship in until the cradle latches clamped home. The bay's rim lights sprang up to full intensity, highlighting the hull, their reflected beams twisting about at irregular angles as the thermo-dump panels folded back into the fuselage. Then the cradle started to descend.
In the bridge not a word was spoken. It was the mood which had haunted them all the way from Narok, an infection passed down from captain to crew.
Sarha looked over the bridge at Joshua for some sign of . . . humanity, she supposed. He had flown them here, making excellent time as always. And apart from the kind of instructions necessary to keep the ship humming smoothly, he hadn't put ten words together. He'd even taken his meals alone in his cabin.
Beaulieu and Dahybi had told the rest of the crew of the Norfolk possession, and how concerned Joshua had been for Louise. So at least Sarha knew the reason for his blues, even though she found it slightly hard to believe. This was the Joshua with whom she'd had an affair for over six months last year. He was so easy about the relationship that when they did finally stop sleeping together she'd stayed on as part of the crew without any awkwardness on either side. Which was why she found it difficult that Joshua could be so affected by what had happened to Louise, by all accounts a fairly simple country girl. He never became that entangled. Commitment wasn't a concept which nested in his skull. Part of the fascination was his easygoing nature. There was never any deceit with Joshua, you knew just where you stood.
Perhaps Louise wasn't so simple after all. Perhaps I'm just jealous.
"Going to tell us now, Captain?" she asked.
"Huh?" Joshua turned his head in her general direction.
"Why we're here? We're not chasing Meyer anymore. So who is this Dr Mzu?"
"Best you don't ask."
A circuit of the bridge showed her how irritated everyone was getting with his attitude. "Absolutely, Joshua; I mean, you can't be sure if we're trustworthy, can you? Not after all this time."
Joshua stared at her. Fortunately, belaboured intuition finally managed to struggle through his moping thoughts to reveal the crew's bottled-up exasperation. "Bugger," he winced. Sarha was right, after all they'd been through together these people deserved a better style of captaincy than this. Jesus, I'm picking up Ione's paranoia. Thank God I didn't have to make any real command decisions. "Sorry, I just got hit by Norfolk. I wasn't expecting it." "Nobody expected any of this, Joshua," Sarha said sympathetically.
"Yeah, right. Okay, Dr Mzu is a physicist, who once worked for the Garissan navy--"
They didn't say much while he told them what the flight was about. Which was probably a good thing, he guessed. It was one hell of a deal he'd accepted on their behalf. How would I feel if they'd dragged me along without knowing why?
When he finished he could see a mild smile on Ashly's face, but then the old pilot always did claim to chase after excitement. The others took it all reasonably stoically; though Sarha was looking at him with a kind of bemused pique.
Joshua hitched his face up into one of his old come-on grins. "Told you, you were better off not knowing."
She hissed at him, then relented. "Bloody hell, wasn't there anybody else the Lord of Ruin could use?"
"Who would you trust?"
Sarha tried to come up with an answer, and failed hopelessly.
"If anyone wants to bail out, let me know," Joshua said. "This wasn't exactly covered in my job description when you signed on."
"Neither was Lalonde," Melvyn said dryly.
"Beaulieu?" Joshua asked.
"I have always served my captain to the best of my ability," the shiny cosmonik said. "I see no reason to stop now."
"Thanks. All of you. Okay, let's get Lady Mac powered down. Then we'll have a quick scout around for the doctor."
* * *
The Dorados Customs and Immigration Service took seventy-five minutes to process the Lady Mac 's crew. Given the quarantine, Joshua had been expecting some hassle, but these officers seemed intent on analysing every molecule in the starship. Their documentation was reviewed four separate times. Joshua wound up paying a five-thousand-fuseodollar administration fee to the chief inspector before they were confirmed to be non-possessed, had the appropriate Tranquillity government authorization to be flying, and declared suitable citizens to enter Ayacucho. The lawyers were waiting for him at the end of the docking bay airlock tube. Three of them, two men and a woman, their unfussy blue suits cloned from some conservative chain-store design program.
"Captain Calvert?" the woman asked. She gave him a narrow frown, as if uncertain he could be the person she wanted.
Joshua rotated slightly so his silver star on his epaulette was prominent. "You got me."
"You are the captain of the Lady Macbeth ?" Again the uncertainty.
"I am Mrs Nateghi from Tayari, Usoro and Wang, we represent the Zaman Service and Equipment Company which operates here in the spaceport."
"Sorry, guys, I don't need a maintenance contract. We just got refitted."
She held out a flek with a gold scale of justice symbol embossed on one side. "Marcus Calvert, this is a summons for fees owing to our client since August 2586. You are required to appear before the Ayacucho civil claims court at a date to be set in order to resolve this debt."
The flek was pressed into Joshua's palm. "Whaa--" he managed to grunt. Sarha started giggling, which drew a cool glare from Mrs Nateghi. "We have also filed a court impounding order on the Lady Macbeth ," she said frostily. "Please do not try and leave as you did last time."
Joshua kissed the flek flamboyantly and beamed at the woman. "I'm Joshua Calvert. I think you should be talking to my father. He's Marcus Calvert."
If the statement threw her, there was no visible sign. "Are you the Lady Macbeth 's current owner?"
"Then you remain liable for the debt. I will have the summons revised to reflect this. The impounding order remains unaffected."
Joshua kept his smile in place. He datavised the flight computer for a review of all 2586 log entries. There weren't any. "Jesus, Dad, thanks a bunch," he muttered under his breath.
No way--absolutely not--would he show the three vultures how fazed he was. "Look, this is obviously an oversight, a computer glitch, something on those lines. I have no intention of contesting the debt. And I shall be very happy to pay off any money owing on Lady Mac 's account. I'm sure nobody wants this regrettable misunderstanding to come to court." He jabbed a toe at Sarha whose giggles had turned to outright laughter.
Mrs Nateghi gave a brisk nod. "It is within my brief to accept payment in full." "Fine." Joshua took his Jovian Bank credit disk out of his ship-suit's top pocket.
"The cost in 2586 to the Zaman Company for services rendered comes to seventy-two thousand fuseodollars. I have an invoice."
"I'm sure you do." Joshua held out the credit disk, anxious to be finished.
The lawyer consulted her processor block, a show of formality. "The interest accrued on your debt over twenty-five years comes to two hundred and eighty-nine thousand fuseodollars, as approved by the court."
Sarha's laughter ended in a choke. Joshua had to use a neural nanonics nerve impulse override to stop himself from snarling at the lawyer. He was sure she was doing the same to stop her equally blank face from sneering. Bitch! "Of course," he said faintly.
"And our firm's fee for dealing with the case is twenty-three thousand fuseodollars."
"Yes, I thought you were cheap."
This time, she scowled.
Joshua shunted the money over. The lawyers hauled themselves away down the corridor.
"Can we afford that?" Sarha asked.
"Yes," Joshua said. "I have an unlimited expense account for this trip. Ione's paying." He didn't want to dwell on what she'd say when she saw the bill.
I wonder why Dad left in such a hurry?
Ashly patted Joshua's shoulder. "Real chip off the old block, your dad, eh?"
"I hope he hurries up and possesses someone soon," Joshua said through gritted teeth. "There's a few things I'd like to talk to him about." Then he thought about what he'd just said. Maybe not as funny and cuttingly sarcastic as he'd intended. Because Dad was there in the beyond. Suffering in the beyond. That's if he wasn't already . . . "Come on, let's make a start."
* * *
The club he wanted, according to the spaceport personnel, was the Bar KF-T; that's where the action was. Along with the dealers, pushers, and pimps, and all the rest of the people in the know.
The trouble was, Joshua found after a straight two-hour stint of surfing the tables, they didn't know the one piece of information he needed. The name of Alkad Mzu had not left a heavy impression on the citizens of Ayacucho.
At the end he gave up and went to sit with Ashly and Melvyn at a raised corner table. It gave him a good view over the dance floor, where some nice girls were moving in trim movements. He rolled his beer bottle between his palms, not much interested in the contents.
"It was only a long shot, Captain," Melvyn said. "We ought to start sniffing around the astroengineering companies. Right now they're so desperate for business that even the legitimate ones would happily consider selling her a frigate."
"If she wants to disappear, she has to do it at the bottom of the heap," Joshua said. "You'd think the dealers would have heard something."
"Maybe not," Ashly said. "There's definitely some kind of underground league here. It can't be the same as the usual asteroid independence movements; the Dorados are already sovereign. I got a few hints when they thought I was offering Lady Mac 's services, plenty of talk about revenge against Omuta. Mzu could have turned to them, after all they're her people. Unfortunately, the likes of you and I can hardly pass ourselves off as long-lost cousins of the cause." He held up his hand, studying it dispassionately.
Joshua looked at his own skin. "Yeah, you've got a point. We're not exactly obvious Kenyan-ethnic stock are we?"
"Dahybi might make the grade."
"I doubt it." His eyes narrowed. "Jesus, will you look at how many of those kids are wearing red handkerchiefs around their ankles." Six or seven times that evening while he'd been scouting around teenagers had asked him to take them to Valisk.
"We could do worse than the Deadnights," Melvyn said broodingly. "At least there aren't any possessed here."
"Don't count on it." Ashly leaned over the table, lowering his voice. "My neural nanonics suffered a couple of program load errors this evening. Not full glitches, but the diagnostics couldn't pinpoint the cause."
"Humm." Joshua looked at Melvyn. "You?"
"My communications block had a five-second dropout."
"Some of my memory cells went off-line earlier, too. I should have paid more attention.
Shit. We've been here barely three hours, and we've each been close enough to one to be affected. What does that come to in percentages of the population?"
"Paranoia can be worse than real dangers," Melvyn said.
"Sure. If they are here, they're obviously not strong enough to mount an all-out takeover campaign. Yet. That gives us a little time."
"So what's out next move?" Melvyn asked.
"Other end of the spectrum, I suppose," Joshua said. "Contact someone in government who can run discreet checks for us. Or maybe it wouldn't be a bad idea to let slip the Lady Mac is for hire. If Mzu is here to get help, the only place it'll come from is the nationalist community. They might even wind up trying to charter us to deploy the damn thing."
"Too late now," Ashly said. "We're officially here to buy defence components for Tranquillity. And we've been asking too many questions."
"Yeah. Jesus, I'm not used to thinking along these lines. I wonder if any of my fellow captains have been approached for a combat charter?"
"Only if she's actually in this asteroid," Ashly said. "Nothing to stop the Samaku docking at one of the others when it arrived. That's even if she came here in the first place. We ought to be checking that."
"I'm not an idiot," Joshua moaned. "Sarha's working on it."
* * *
Sarha's smile appeared a little frayed after the third time Mabaki bumped against her. The crowd in the Bar KF-T weren't that excitable. She could certainly thread her way through without jostling anyone.
Mabaki waggled his eyebrows when she glanced back. "Sorry." He grinned.
It wasn't so much that he bumped her, as where. And how the touch tarried. She told herself a pathetic middle-aged letch was probably going to be one of the smaller tribulations they would encounter on this crazy course Joshua had set.
Just before she gave in and tried a datavise, she located Joshua standing over by the bar (where else, she asked herself). "That's him," she told Mabaki.
Sarha tapped Joshua on the shoulder as he was accepting a beer bottle from the barmaid. "Joshua, I found someone I think can . . ." She trailed off in confusion. It wasn't Joshua. That she of all people could be mistaken was astonishing. But he did look remarkably similar, especially in the treacherously shimmering light thrown out by the dance floor's holographic spray. Same broad chest to accommodate a metabolism geneered for free fall, identical prominent jaw folding back into flat cheeks. But this man's skin was darker, though nothing like the ebony of most Dorado Kenyan-ethnics, and his glossy hair was jet-black rather than Joshua's nondescript brown.
"I'm sorry," she stammered.
"I'm not." He could certainly manage the Joshua charm-grin, too. Possibly even better than Joshua.
"I was looking for someone else."
"I hate him already."
"Oh, please, I'm too young for my life to end. And it will when you leave. At least have a drink with me first. He can wait."
"No he can't." She began to move away. Some erratic impulse made her look back in perplexity. Damn, the likeness was extraordinary.
His smile widened. "That's it. You're making the right choice." "No. No, I'm not."
"At least let me give you my eddress."
"Thank you, but we're not staying." Sarha forced her legs to work. She just knew her face would be red. How stupidly embarrassing.
"I'm Liol," he called out after her. "Just ask for Liol. Everybody knows me."
I'll bet they do, she thought, especially the girls. The crowd closed around her again, Mabaki tagging along faithfully.
* * *
Second time lucky. Joshua was sitting at a table in a shadowy corner, and he was with Ashly and Melvyn, so there was no mistake this time.
"Officer Mabaki works for the Dorados Immigration Service," Sarha explained as she pulled up a chair.
"Excellent," Joshua said. "I'd like to purchase some of your files."
It cost him fifteen thousand fuseodollars to learn that the Samaku had definitely docked at Ayacucho. One passenger had disembarked.
"That's her," Mabaki confirmed after Joshua datavised a visual file to him.
"Daphine Kigano. You don't forget women like that."
"Daphine Kigano, really? Bit of a viper was she?"
"You're telling me." Mabaki savoured another sip of the Tennessee Malt Joshua had bought him. "She was some friend or other of Ikela's. You don't mess with those sort of connections."
Joshua datavised the club's net processor for a civil information core, and accessed a file on Ikela. It was mostly public relations spin released by T'Opingtu, but it gave him an idea of what he was dealing with. "So I see," he muttered. "Can you tell us what starships have left since Daphine Kigano arrived?"
"That's simple. None. Well, not unless you count the Edenist delegation, but they're from this system's gas giant anyway. There are still some inter-orbit ships flying, but no Adamist starships. The Lady Macbeth is the first starship to arrive since the Samaku departed."
After Mabaki left a grin spread over Joshua's face. It was the first in a long time which didn't have to be printed there by neural nanonics. "She's still here," he said to the others. "We've got her."
"We've got a lead on her," Melvyn cautioned. "That's all."
"Optimist. Now we know who to ask for, we can start focusing our efforts. I think this Ikela character would be a good place to start. Hell, we can even get a legitimate appointment. T'Opingtu is the kind of company we ought to approach for Tranquillity's SD spares, anyway." He drained his beer bottle and put it back on the table. A flash of movement caught his eye, and he slapped his hand down on the spider which was scuttling clear of the soggy mat.
* * *
"Oh, well," Samuel said. "At least we know why he's here. I suppose Ione Saldana must have commissioned him to track Mzu."
"That stupid little cow," Monica complained. "Doesn't she have any idea what kind of issues she's fooling with? And sending some bloody mercenary on the chase!"
"Lagrange Calvert," Samuel mused. "I suppose she could have done worse. He's certainly got the balls for a mission like this."
"But not the style. God, if he starts blundering around asking questions everyone in the Dorados is going to know Mzu is running loose. Here of all places! I ought to terminate him; it'd save us a nasty headache in the long term."
"I do wish you wouldn't keep on about how much easier life would be if we killed everyone who poses the slightest inconvenience. Calvert is an amateur, he's not going to bother us. Besides, he won't be the one who stirs up the public." Samuel indicated the row of AV pillars set up along one side of the rented office. Edenist agents were busy monitoring the output of every Ayacucho-based media company.
News of Ikela's death was already breaking, tying it in with reports of a "disturbance" at the offices of Laxa and Ahmad. Police were treating the death as suspicious, refusing to comment to the rovers gathered outside the doors of the legal firm. Although they'd already let slip that they would like to question Kaliua Lamu about the death.
Monica winced at that. She shouldn't have blown him, but they had been desperate for the information. The financier had demanded that Monica protect him from his erstwhile comrades: a request she could hardly refuse. He and his family were already on board one of the Edenist delegation's voidhawks, waiting to be spirited away to safety. "Don't I know it. That Cabral is going to make our life hell," she grumbled. "I don't know why you let him and the other two go."
"You know perfectly well why. What else could we do? For goodness' sake, Feira Ile is Ayacucho's SD chief; and Malindi is president of the Merchant's Association; and both of them sit on the Dorados governing council. I could hardly authorize their abduction." "I suppose not," she sighed.
"It's not as if they can tell people what they were doing, or even that they were there."
"Don't count on it. They're certainly above the law here; and if any word of Mzu does leak out it'll inflame the nationalist sympathy."
"I think we had better assume it will do. Cabral will make sure of it. After all, he voted to help her retrieve the Alchemist."
"Yes." She let out an exasperated groan. "God, we walked right past her!"
"Ran past," Samuel corrected.
Monica glared at him. "Any sightings?"
"None at all. However we are losing an unusual number of spiders."
"Children are going around killing them. It's some kind of organized game. Several day clubs are running competitions to see who can find the most. There are cash prizes. Clever," he acknowledged.
"Somebody's well organized."
"Yes and no. Children are a most peculiar method of attack, the numbers they can eliminate will inconvenience us rather than block us. If it was another agency that discovered we were infiltrating the asteroid, they would release a tailored virus to kill the spiders." He cast an inquiring glance. "No?"
She puckered her lips in an ironic smile. "I would imagine that could well be standard operating procedure for some people."
"So . . . it isn't an agency, but it is someone who has connections that reach down into local day clubs. And quickly."
"Not the partizans. They were never that well organized, and their membership is mostly aging reticents. The group that has Mzu?"
"By process of elimination, it must be."
"Yes, but so far we only know one member, this Voi girl. If there is an inner core of partizans I find it hard to believe the ESA didn't know about them."
"And us." He looked over to the agents monitoring the news, his face flickering through a range of expressions as he exchanged a barrage of questions and answers across the general affinity band. "Interesting."
"What?" she asked patiently.
"Given Ikela's mysterious death and his wealth, there's been no mention of his daughter by any media company. That's normally the first thing reporters focus on: who's going to inherit."
"Cabral's shielding her."
"Looks like it."
"Do you think he could be involved with this new group?"
"Very unlikely. From what we know about him, his partizan involvement was minimal, he was part of it for form's sake."
"So what the hell group is Voi mixed up with?"
* * *
Much later, when he had the time to sit down and think about it, Liol gave Lalonde as the reason for being so slow off the mark. He would never have been so sluggish under normal circumstances. But after accessing Kelly Tirrel's report he hit Ayacucho's clubs and bars, drinking and stimming out with methodical determination. A lot of people were doing exactly the same thing, but for a different reason. They merely feared the possessed, while Liol had watched his life's dream crumple in less than a second.
It had always been a dangerous dream. A single hope which has lasted from the earliest days of childhood is not a sound foundation on which to build a life. But Liol had done it. His mother had always told him his father would come back one day; an assurance she kept on repeating through another three husbands and countless boyfriends. He will return, and he'll take us away with him; somewhere where the sun shines dazzling white and the land is flat and endless. A universe away from the Dorados, worldlets haunted by the momentous horror and tragedy of the past.
The dream--the sure knowledge--of his destiny gave Liol attitude, setting him apart from his peers. His was among the first generation of Garissans born after the genocide. While others suffered from their parents' nightmares, a young Liol flourished in the expanding caverns and corridors of Mapire. He was the champion of his day club; idolized as reckless by his teeny friends, the first of all of them to get drunk, the first to have sex, the first to try soft drugs, and then not so soft, the first to run a black stimulant program through newly implanted neural nanonics. A genuine been-there-done-that kid, as much as you could go and do within the limited scope for experience permitted in orbit around Tunja.
His zest even carried over into his early twenties, when the years of his father's non-return were beginning to pile up in an alarming quantity. He still clung to his mother's promise. A goodly number of his contemporaries emigrated from the Dorados when they reached their majority, a migration worrying to the council. Everyone assumed Liol would be among them, surely the first who would want to seek new opportunities. But he stayed, joining in the effort to build the Dorados into a prime industrial state.
Garissa's refugees had been awarded the settlement rights to the Dorados by the Confederation Assembly as part of their restitutions against Omuta for the genocide. Every multistellar company mining the ore had to pay a licence fee to the council, part of which was used to invest in the asteroids' infrastructure, while the remainder was paid directly to the survivors, and their descendants, by now scattered across the Confederation.
By 2606 this dividend had grown to a respectable twenty-eight thousand fuseodollars per annum. With such a guaranteed income as collateral, Liol had little trouble collecting loans and grants from the bank and the Dorados Development Agency to start his own business. In keeping with his now somewhat unhealthy obsession with spaceflight, he formed a company, Quantum Serendipity, specializing in servicing starship electronics. It was a good choice; the number of starship movements in the Tunja system was growing each year. He was awarded subcontracts by the larger service and maintenance companies, working his way up the list of approved suppliers. After two years of steady growth, he leased a docking bay in the spaceport, and made his first bid for a complete starship maintenance service. Year three saw Quantum Serendipity buy a majority share in a small electronics station; by producing the processors in-house he could undercut his competitors and still make a profit.
He now had the majority shares in two electronics stations, owned seven docking bays, and employed seventy people. And six months ago, Quantum Serendipity had landed a service contract for the communications network linking Ayacucho's SD platforms; a rock-solid income which was on the verge of pushing him into a whole new level of operations.
Then news of the possession arrived from the Confederation Assembly, swiftly followed by Kelly Tirrel's report. The first didn't bother Liol half as much as his competitors, with his SD contract he could keep his company afloat throughout the crisis. But the second item, with its hero-of-the-day, super-pilot Lagrange Calvert rescuing little kiddies in his starship. That came close to breaking Liol. It was the end of his world.
None of his friends understood the reason behind his sudden ferocious depression, the worrying benders he launched himself into. But then they had never been told of his dream, and how much it meant to him, that was private. So after a couple of abortive attempts to "cheer him up" had failed dismally amid his tirades of calculatingly vicious abuse, they had left him alone.
Which was why he'd been surprised when the girl in the Bar KF-T had spoken to him. Surprised, and not a little bit blasted. The come-on routine he gave her was automatic, he didn't have to think. It was only when she'd gone that a frown crossed his flattish, handsome face. "Joshua," he said in a drink-fuddled voice. "She called me Joshua. Why did she do that?"
The barmaid, who by now had given up on the idea of lugging him home for the night, shrugged gamely and moved on.
Liol drained his whisky chaser in one swift toss, then datavised a search request into the spaceport registration computer. The answer seemed to trojan a wickedly effective sober-up program into his neural nanonics.
* * *
Alkad had seen worse rooms when she was on the move thirty years ago. The hotel charged by the hour, catering for starship crews on fast stopovers, and citizens who wanted somewhere quiet and private to indulge any of a variety of vices which modern technology could provide. There was no window, the hotel was cut into rock some distance behind the cliff at the end of the biosphere cavern. It was cheaper that way. The customers never even noticed.
Big holograms covered two of the walls, showing pictures of some planetary city at dusk, its jewelscape of twinkling lights retreating into a horizon of salmon-pink sky. The bed filled half of the floor space, leaving just enough room for people to shuffle around it. There was no other furniture. The bathroom was a utilitarian cubicle fitted with a shower and a toilet. Soaps and gels were available from a pay dispenser.
"This is Lodi Shalasha," Voi said when they arrived. "Our electronics supremo, he's made sure the room's clean. I hope. For his sake."
The young man rolled off the bed and smiled nervously at Alkad. He was dressed in a flamboyant orange suit with eye-twisting green spirals. Not quite as tall as Voi, and several kilos overweight.
Student type, Alkad categorized instantly, burning with the outrage that came from a head stuffed full of fresh knowledge. She'd seen it a thousand times before when she was a lecturer; kids from an easy background expanding their minds in all the wrong directions at the first taste of intellectual freedom.
His smile was strained when he looked at Voi. "Have you heard?"
"Heard what?" the tall girl was immediately suspicious.
"I'm sorry, Voi. Really."
"Your father. There was some kind of trouble at the Laxa and Ahmad offices. He's dead. It's all over the news."
Every muscle in the girl's body hardened, she stared right through Lodi. "How?"
"The police say he was shot. They want to question Kaliua Lamu."
"That's stupid, why would Kaliua shoot my father?"
Lodi shrugged hopelessly.
"It must have been those people running to the offices. Foreign agents, they did it," Voi said. "We must not let this distract us." She paused for a moment, then burst into tears.
Alkad had guessed it was coming, the girl was far too rigid. She sat Voi down on the bed and put her arm around the girl's shoulders. "It's all right," she soothed. "Just let it happen."
"No." Voi was rocking back and forth. "I must not. Nothing must interfere with the cause. I've got a suppressor program I can use. Give me a moment." "Don't," Alkad warned. "That's the worst thing you can do. Believe me, I've had enough experience of grief to know what works."
"I didn't like my father," Voi wailed. "I told him I hated him. I hated what he did. He was weak."
"No, Ikela was never weak. Don't think that of your father. He was one of the best navy captains we had."
Voi wiped a hand across her face, simply broadening the tear trails. "A navy captain?"
"That's right. He commanded a frigate during the war. That's how I knew him." "Daddy fought in the war?"
"Yes. And after."
"I don't understand. He never said."
"He wasn't supposed to. He was under orders, and he obeyed them right up to his death. An officer to the last. I'm proud of him. All Garissans can be proud of him." Alkad hoped the hypocrisy wouldn't taint her voice. She was alarmingly aware how much she needed Voi's people now, whoever they were. And Ikela had almost kept the faith, it was only a white lie. "What did he do in the navy?" Voi was suddenly desperate for details.
"Later, I promise," Mzu said. "Right now I want you to activate a somnolence program. Believe me, it's the best thing. We were having a hard enough day before this." "I don't want to sleep."
"I know. But you need it. And I'm not going anywhere. I'll be here when you wake up."
Voi glanced uncertainly at Lodi, who nodded encouragingly. "All right." She lay back on the bed, shuffled herself comfortable, and closed her eyes. The program took hold. Alkad stood up and deactivated the chameleon suit. It was painful peeling the hood off her face, the thin fabric stuck possessively to her skin. But the room's cool air was a tonic; she'd sweated heavily underneath it.
She split the seal on her blouse and began to wriggle her arms out of the suit. Lodi coughed frantically.
"Never seen a naked woman before?"
"Er, yes. But . . . I. That is--"
"Are you just playing at this, Lodi?"
"Playing at what?"
"Being a good-guy radical, a revolutionary on the run?"
"Good. Because you're going to see a lot worse than a bare-arsed woman my age before we're done."
His skittish attitude calmed. "I understand. I really do. Er--"
Alkad started on the trousers, they were tighter than the hood. "Yes?"
"Who are you, exactly?"
"Voi didn't explain?"
"No. She just told me to alert the group for possible action. She said we must be careful because the asteroid was probably under covert surveillance."
"She was right."
"Yeah, I know," he said proudly. "I was the one who worked out the Edenists were spreading those spiders."
"Clever of you."
"Thanks. Our junior cadres are cleaning them from critical areas, corridor junctions and places. But I made sure they skimp around this hotel; I didn't want to draw attention to it."
"A smart precaution. So do these cadres of yours know we're here?"
"No, absolutely not; nobody else knows. I swear. Voi said she wanted a safe room; I even paid cash."
Maybe I can still salvage this after all, Alkad thought. "Tell you what, Lodi; I'm going to have a shower first, then afterwards you can tell me all about this little group of yours."
* * *
As with most crews when they were docked, Joshua liked to book in at a hotel even if it was only for a single night. It wasn't necessarily more convenient than staying in the Lady Mac , it just made a change. This time, though, the crew returned to the starship; and Joshua depressurized the airlock tube once they were all back on board. It would hardly stop anyone in an SII suit, but Lady Mac had her fair share of internal defence systems. And besides . . . at the back of his mind was the notion that a possessed would be hard-pressed to wear and operate a spacesuit; if Kelly was right, their rampant energistic ability would completely screw up the suit's processors. He sealed himself up in his sleep cocoon with his paranoia reduced to its lowest level in days.
It was a sombre breakfast as they began to drift into the galley cabin and collect their food five hours later. Everyone had accessed the local news companies. Ikela's murder was the premier item.
Ashly glanced at the galley's AV pillar as he plugged his cereal packet into the milk nozzle.
"Got to be a cover-up," the pilot grunted. "Too much smoke, too little fire. The police should have made an arrest by now. Where's someone as prominent as this Lamu character going to hide in an asteroid?"
Joshua glanced up from his carton of grapefruit. "You think Mzu did it?"
"No." Ashly retrieved the now-chilly packet and gulped down a mouthful of the mushy wheat paste. "I think someone trying to get Mzu did it; Ikela just got in their way. The police must know that. They simply can't blurt it out in public." "So did they get her?" Melvyn asked.
"Am I psychic?"
"Such questions are irrelevant," Beaulieu said. "We don't have enough information to speculate in this fashion."
"We can certainly speculate on who else is trying to nab her," Melvyn said.
"For my money, it's got to be the bloody intelligence agencies. If we can confirm she made it here, so can they. And that's serious trouble, Captain. If they can kill someone like Ikela with impunity, they're not going to worry much about riding over us."
Joshua switched his empty carton of grapefruit for a can of tea and a croissant. He stared around at his crew as he chewed on the bland pastry (another reason he liked hotels, free-fall food was always soft and tacky to avoid crumbs). Melvyn's words were unsettling, none of them were really used to personal, one-on-one danger; starship combat was so very different. Then there was the possibility of encountering the possessed as well. "Beaulieu's right, we don't have enough data yet. We'll spend the morning rectifying that. Melvyn and Ashly, you team up; I want you to concentrate on industrial defence contracts, see if you can find traces of the kind of things Mzu would require for retrieving and deploying the Alchemist. Principally, that'll be a starship, but it'll still need fitting out; if we're really lucky she could have ordered some kind of customized equipment. Dahybi, Beaulieu; try and find out what happened to the Daphine Kigano alias, where she was last seen, her credit disk number, that kind of thing. I'm going to find out what I can about Ikela and his associates."
"What about me?" Sarha asked indignantly.
"You're on duty in here, and you don't let anyone apart from us on board. From now on, there will always be one of us on the bridge. I don't know that there are any possessed in Ayacucho, but I'm not risking it. There's also the intelligence agencies to consider, along with local security forces, and whoever Mzu is lined up with. I think now might also be an appropriate time to take the serjeants out of zero-tau just in case events turn sour. We can pass them off as cosmoniks easily enough."
* * *
Ione was finding the whole sensation of independence most peculiar, both individually and in unison with the mirror fragment minds in the other serjeants. Her thoughts were fluttering across the affinity band like birds fleeing a hurricane.
We must try and separate more, she said.
To which her own thoughts replied: Absolutely.
She felt like giggling; the kind of giggle that came from being tickled by a merciless lover: unwelcome yet inevitable.
The affinity contact with the other three serjeants reduced, paring down to essential information: location, threat status, environment interpretation. She couldn't help the little frisson of eagerness at the experience; this was the first time she had ever been anywhere outside Tranquillity. Ayacucho might not be much, but she was determined to soak in as much of it as she could.
She was following Joshua out of the transit capsule which had delivered them from the spaceport. The axial chamber was just a low-gee bubble of rock, but at the same time it was a bubble of rock which she hadn't seen before. Her first foreign world.
Joshua got into a waiting tube lift and sat down. She chose the seat opposite him, the composite creaking as it adjusted to her weight.
"This is all so strange," she said as the lift moved off. "Part of me wants to be next to you."
His face became immobile. "Jesus, Ione, why the fuck did you shove your personality into the serjeants? Tranquillity's would've been just fine."
"Why, Joshua Calvert, I do believe you're embarrassed."
"Who me? Oh, no, I'm quite used to sexless two metre monstrosities making a pass at me."
"Don't be so grumpy. It's unbecoming. Besides, you should be grateful. My instinct is very protective towards you. That might give me an edge."
Joshua's retort was lost somewhere in his throat.
The lift's doors opened on a public hall in the asteroid's commercial district where several late office workers scurried to work while a pair of mechanoids cleaned the walls and floor. It was less spartan than the axial chamber, with a high, arched roof and troughs of plants spaced at regular intervals. But it was still only a tunnel through rock, nothing exuberant. Unfortunately the serjeant didn't have lips that could easily be compressed into a pout, otherwise she would have done it. She really wanted to see the biosphere cavern.
Joshua started off down the hall.
"What do you hope to accomplish here?" she asked.
"T'Opingtu is a big company; someone will have been appointed to run it straightaway. And Ikela would make sure his replacement is someone he can trust, someone from his immediate circle. It's not much, but it's the best lead we've got."
"I really don't think you'll be able to get an appointment today."
"Don't be such a downer, Ione. Your trouble is Tranquillity is incorruptible and logical, that's all you're used to. Asteroids like Ayacucho are neither. The size of the contract I'm going to dangle in their faces will get me straight into the top office. There's an etiquette to this kind of business."
"Very well, you get in. Then what?"
"I won't know until I get there. Remember this is strictly a data acquisition mission, everything is helpful even if it is only negative. So keep your senses open and your memory on full record."
"Okay, now we're primarily interested in anything we can learn about Ikela's life. We know he was an Garissan refugee, so who did he move with from the past, was he a strong nationalist? Names, contacts, that kind of stuff."
"My personality didn't suffer any damage during the replication process, I can think for myself."
"Wonderful. A bodyguard with an attitude."
"Joshua, darling, this isn't attitude."
He stopped and jabbed a finger at the husky construct. "Now look--"
"That's Pauline Webb," Ione said.
Three people were marching down the public hall towards Joshua. Two African-ethnic men flanking a white woman. He didn't like the look of the men at all; they were wearing civilian suits, but combat armour would have been more appropriate. Boosted, and no doubt containing a wide variety of extremely lethal implants.
Pauline Webb stopped a couple of metres short of Joshua and gave the serjeant a curious glance. "Your appointment is cancelled, Calvert. Collect your crew, get back in your starship, and go home. Today."
Joshua produced his most nonchalant grin. "Pauline Webb. Fancy seeing you here." Her narrowed eyes gave the serjeant another suspicious glance. "This situation is not your concern anymore."
"It is everybody's concern," Ione said. "Especially mine."
"I didn't know you things could operate independently."
"Now you do," Joshua said politely. "So if you'll just step aside . . ."
The man directly in front of Joshua folded his arms and planted his feet slightly apart, a true immovable object. He smiled carnivorously down at Joshua.
"Er, perhaps we could come to an arrangement?"
"The arrangement is simple," Webb said. "If you leave, you get to live."
"Come on, Joshua," Ione said. The serjeant's all-too-human hand closed on his shoulder, forcing him to turn.
"That's smart advice," Webb said. "Listen to it."
Ione let go of his shoulder after a few paces. A fuming Joshua allowed her to escort him back down the hall towards the lift. When he glanced over his shoulder Webb and her two troopers were standing watching him.
"This isn't her turf," he hissed at the serjeant. "We could have caused a scene, made trouble for her. The police would have sorted her out as well as us."
"Any incident with the authorities here would have been resolved in her favour. She's a CNIS officer assigned to Mzu; the local Navy Bureau would have backed her, and you and I would be in deep shit, not to mention jail."
"How the hell did Webb know where I was going?"
"I imagine Lady Mac 's crew is under clandestine surveillance right now."
"Quite. We will have to withdraw and come up with a new strategy."
They reached the lift doors, and Joshua datavised for a ride back to the axial chamber. He cast another glance over his shoulder to check on Webb, a sly smile germinating on his face. "You know what this means, don't you?"
"The agencies don't have her yet. We're still in with a chance."
"Of course it's logical. We may even be able to turn this to our advantage."
"I'll tell you when we're back in Lady Mac . Everyone's going to have to undergo decontamination first. Christ knows what sort of covert nanonics they've stung us with. We'll be broadcasting our own thoughts back to them if we're not careful." The lift doors opened and he stepped inside. Someone had slapped half a dozen twenty-centimetre circular holomorph stickers at random over the walls, with a couple more on the ceiling. One was at head height; it started its cycle, a tight bud of lavender photons swelling out from the centre into the form of a scantily clad teenage cheerleader. She shook her silver baton enthusiastically. "Run, Alkad, run!" she yelled. "You're our last hope; don't let them catch you. Run, Alkad, run!"
Joshua stared at it in stupefaction. "Jesus wept."
The cheerleader winked saucily, and syphoned back down below the sticker's surface. Three more began their cycle.
Copyright © 2000 Peter F. Hamilton. All rights reserved.